Mortal Kombat: a flawed, but nonfatal affair

Video game film adaptations are famous for their lack of high quality, and with every new release there is some hope of among anxious fans that they are at least “somewhat decent.” The more offensive of these adaptations, like Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, seem to take conceptual issue with the work that they are based on, and vary greatly (often to anemic effect) from their source material.

Joe Taslim as Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat. The third live-action adaptation of the beloved franchise recreates its iconic moments and characters to middling success. Photo: Warner Bros.

But a lot of the others, while staying true to their origins, always seem to… not understand how storytelling in film is supposed to work. Corners are cut, budgets are stunted, and in the end producers and audiences both are left with a final product that should by its nature be something of blockbuster quality – but is instead a subpar failure on all parts.

2021’s Mortal Kombat will more often than not fall into that latter camp. For film fans such as myself, it’s not very good. But for hardcore Mortal Kombat franchise fans (also such as myself), there is plenty to appreciate in its action-packed 110 minutes. Spoilers below:

Mortal Kombat is the story of struggling MMA fighter Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who has since birth been marked by a mysterious dragon symbol on his chest. When Cole and his family are attacked by cryokinetic assassin Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim), the young fighter is recruited by US Special Forces operatives Jax Briggs (Mehcad Brooks) and Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), who are convinced that the dragon markings designate individuals as participants in an ancient, interdimensional martial arts tournament known as “Mortal Kombat.” Needing only one more victory to conquer all of “Earthrealm,” the soul-stealing sorcerer Shang Tsung (Chin Han) preempts any formal fighting bouts by sending out his minions to kill the chosen ones before the tournament begins, leaving the planet defenseless and ensuring the evil “Outworld’s” victory over all of humanity.

Cole, Sonya, and Jax are joined by egomaniacal mercenary Kano (Josh Lawson) as they make their way for “Raiden’s Temple,” a legendary training ground for the champions of Earthrealm. There they meet Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang), fellow heroes and superpowered cousins who have unlocked their fantastical abilities by tapping into their “arcana.” Should our heroes have any hope of defeating the evil that seeks their destruction, they must all unlock their own arcanas – so says the elder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), who watches over Cole and the others as they prepare for the tournament.

If that all sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Mortal Kombat is bogged with exposition, and while this is a storytelling quality that the lore-filled source material demands (there’s an entire storyline I haven’t even mentioned), the film bungles itself with corny, “unnecessary-if-you-think-about-it” dialogue, hit-or-miss winks to the fandom, offbeat and underdeveloped plot points, and (most damaging of all) newly contrived story elements that instead of elevating the film to champion heights, lock it down in a pin.

Namely, these are the plot devices of the dragon markings and the mystical arcana powers. Both of these things are never mentioned in the games, and in all honesty I think they were primarily introduced as a way to distinguish this movie from that of its 1995 predecessor, also titled Mortal Kombat. For all the original film’s flaws, the story is at least solid, and follows true enough to the plot of the game series. And given how much this new reboot film tries to demonstrate its loyalty to the fans (often to the point of rendering some details inert and nonsensical without context), it is certainly confusing why 2021 Mortal Kombat decided to shy away from these more endearing roots.

And then there’s Cole Young. Our main character is himself a novel appearance for the franchise, an introduction which pushes aside fan-favorite Johnny Cage in what my most cynical parts of myself see as the producers striving for more “diversity” in a film that doesn’t really need it. There is some burden then to try and make this new protagonist a stand-out – which, aside from Cole’s arcana being distinct among his cohorts, the film fails to do. While Cole is a talented enough fighter to work in the MMA, he has no apparent edge or hook that makes him different from the rest. And while it’s cemented well enough that he loves his family, this relationship (like all relationships in the movie), has no heart. His dynamics between wife and daughter are in fact so lacking in drama that the movie’s plot has Cole globe-trotting across the planet in search of Raiden’s Temple without ever informing his loved ones.

Lewis Tan as Cole Young, a new addition to the Mortal Kombat universe. In a world filled with dynamic and distinct characters, the film does little to make Cole a gripping protagonist. Photo: Warner Bros.

That last point might sound like a nitpick, but the movie is so filled with these forward-momentum conveniences that it ironically brings to attention any sort of plot holes that it would want the audience to just simply gloss over. Here are just some of the questions I had after watching: if Sonya Blade is hiding out in Gary, Indiana to evade Shang Tsung, how is Tsung able to track them so easily? Why does he send the killer Reptile to fight them in Gary when Sub-Zero has demonstrated himself to be a capable assassin? Why does Kano, undoubtedly himself a master in double-cross, not ask for the money up-front from Sonya that she clearly does not have? Why do Raiden’s monks rescue Jax but not also recruit the other heroes at the same time? If Raiden’s Temple is also so hidden, how can Shang Tsung find it so easily? Why has he never attacked it before? Why is Raiden forbidden from interfering in the proceedings, but in some cases clearly does exactly that? And, if he can teleport anyone anywhere at anytime, as established, then why doesn’t Raiden send anyone to help Cole in the climactic battle against Sub-Zero, an enemy too powerful to be taken on alone (also clearly established)?

The movie’s answer to all this comes in the form of a question itself: who cares? You’re going into a Mortal Kombat movie, and if you’re far enough initiated into the franchise, then you aren’t really watching this film to find Academy Award-winning fare (though that would be nice coming from a video game movie, just this once). No – you are watching a Mortal Kombat movie to see at last some of your favorite video game characters come beautifully to life.

And then be brutally – BRUTALLY – put to death.

I’m referring of course to the franchise’s signature “fatalities” – coup de grâce finishing moves of exorbitant violence that the characters can perform after winning a match. This new Mortal Kombat film offers enough of them to satisfy even some of the most bloodthirsty of fans (though, for the complete deranged – such as myself – you may find yourself wanting for more full spinal extractions and high-velocity spike punctures).

Taslim’s Sub-Zero dukes it out with rival character Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada). It’s one of the tamer fights in a film filled with gory goodness. Photo: Warner Bros.

And for as hard as those kinds of effects can be, the movie pulls off a lot of its visual components really well. Though there may be some hiccups in the editing and script supervision (some just plain disorienting), the fights look great, the environments pop, and plenty of costumes reach exceptional levels of craft. The only glaring part of the picture was the unearthly white glow of Raiden’s eyes, an effect exacerbated to inexcusable cartoonery no-thanks to Asano’s miscast performance.

The film’s other acting efforts really are something of a mixed bag, which is likely (and clearly, in Tan’s case) a result of the lacking script. Han as Tsung is underutilized and uncharismatic, leaving a gulf between this actor’s turn and that of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa from the first film. Brooks and McNamee are solid as Briggs and Blade, but it is Lawson’s Kano (in a disturbing pattern of assholes being the most entertaining) that is the clear victor over all the rest.

Mortal Kombat is an incredibly middling film – not because it is so “meh” throughout, but because the excess and extremes of its highs and lows average the whole thing out somewhere in between. Should there be any attempt at a sequel, I would only hope that its producers learn from this movie’s rookie mistakes.

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